Daring to Think

Enabling and facilitating students to think is one of the most fundamental and yet most challenging aspects of any classroom. So much of our modern curriculum is geared towards a knowledge and recall of facts to answer exam questions – yet in our technology driven Society, such a skill of memory retention is rapidly becoming obsolete. Why spend hours rote-learning key facts when a Google driven device can do it several times faster and more reliably than even the sharpest human brain?

So, the ancient Athenian art of philosophy has been integral to creating a shift in pedagogy in many subject disciplines at St Mark’s Anglican Community School, and the students are reaping the benefits. Taught as a stand-alone subject as an elective course in Year 10 and an optional ATAR and General Pathway in Years 11 and 12, Philosophy has enabled the students to engage with the information laden world with a more critical and collaborative mindset.

Integral to the practice at St Mark's is the ‘Philosophy in Schools’ approach which uses the Community of Inquiry device formulated by Matthew Lipman. The process is very simple – students are presented with a short stimulus material related to a topic, such as a news article, a thought experiment, or at Primary level, a short story. The students are then asked to collaborate together to choose an Inquiry question that will enable the topic to be discussed in more depth. The central phase of the process is a Socratic-circle style discussion with the students being enabled and empowered to engage in a respectful and critical investigation.

The teacher’s role is that of a ‘Facilitator’ – rather than information giver - who prompts the student’s engagement, develops their thinking skills and ensures that all students have an opportunity to participate. With practice, the students are able to manage their own discussion with a high degree of emotional intelligence, which then enables a deeply critical inquiry to take place. Assumptions are challenged, pre-conceived ideas questioned as students wholeheartedly engage at a very deep level. This pedagogical approach focusses on the General Capabilities of critical and creative thinking and intercultural understanding thereby equipping students with 21st century skills so in demand by modern workforces.

At St Mark’s this process is not only used in the stand-alone Philosophy classes, but a number of teachers across the subject curriculum have become trained in the practice. As a result, a Philosophical Community of Inquiry has been seen in an English lesson discussing key themes of a literary text such as ‘Lord of the Flies’, in a geographical inquiry over sustainability, a Year 8 History class investigating the Crusades, an Economics investigation into sweat shops, and has the further potential to be used in a Science class studying the ethics of cloning or an art lesson investigating the concepts of beauty or art.

The students’ engagement in this type of lesson has soared, as previously disengaged students have suddenly found their opinions matter, and they have been challenged to develop their arguments to support – or often change - their position. The number of students who opt for the elective and optional Philosophy courses in Years 10 to 12 is very healthy.

A new General course was introduced in for Year 11 and 12 students in 2019, to enable more students to have access to, and engage with the subject. This has proven to be a popular pathway for many students.

The School has gained local recognition for its continued and sustained performance in the ATAR public examinations, as St Mark’s has been named as a ‘top performing school’ for Philosophy and Ethics by SCSA in 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2015 and 2014. This is testimony to the hard work and dedication of the students and staff in this subject area.

A recent highlight in the School was the life-size re-creation of Joseph Kosuth’s art instillation ‘One and Three Chairs’. This was co-produced by the Art and Photography departments, using a regular classroom chair, and exhibited outside the Library. It provided a thought provoking exhibit for those passing by, as well as a real-life stimulus for a Community of Inquiry that complimented the Year 11 ATAR and General studies of beauty and aesthetics. The questions asked by the students in their inquiries asked whether the instillation could be considered ‘Art’ as it was a ‘copy’ of an original piece, and in true Plato style, considered which of the three chairs was the ‘real’ chair.

As the result of a student suggestion, St Mark’s runs a weekly Philosophy Café which meets every Friday lunchtime. Students choose a question to investigate in a Community of inquiry as they eat their lunch, and it has proven to be a powerful and popular session. Up to 30 students from Year 6 through to Year 12 regularly attend in what is a student-led session that provides an opportunity to investigate areas of interest to the students. Recent questions have included ‘Does euthanasia undermine the value of human life?’ Is it right to use scientific research obtained in dubious ways if it helps save lives?’; ‘Is it ethical to keep pets?’; ‘Is there any such thing as a new idea?’ and ‘Is it possible to think of nothing?’.

This has proved to be a pathway for St Mark’s to enter the annual Perth Philosothon competition, where students engage in the Community of Inquiry process along with those from other schools. In a Philosothon, students earn points for their ability to work together collaboratively, present creative ideas and to engage critically with the content. One of our students , Jordyn White, has won her age category for the last three years in this competition, which is an outstanding achievement.

Following a strong showing in this tournament, St Mark’s has been honoured to be invited to represent Western Australia at the annual FAPSA Australasian Philosothon competition – in 2018 in Adelaide and in 2019 in Canberra. The 2020 tournament took place online due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, but St Mark’s decided not to compete.

Building on these successes, St Mark’s hosts an annual ‘Philosopher in Residence’ program, where a visiting philosopher joins the School community for a week to work with both students and staff. I In 2020, we welcomed Professor Rob Wilson and Dr Kaz Bland from UWA.

In 2018, we were privileged to host Peter Worley from the Philosophy Foundation in the UK. Peter led and presented sessions on the issue of land ownership to Year 6, and worked with our Primary students as well as helping our Year 12 students develop skills and understanding to help them with their ATAR exam. Peter also helped staff to develop their understanding of meta-cognition – or ‘thinking about thinking’.

In 2019, Dr Tim Dean worked with our Middle and Senior students on a host of topics related to his expertise in morality and philosophy of science designed to develop their philosophical knowledge and encouraged them to develop reasons for their arguments.

In 2020, we welcomed Professor Rob Wilson and Dr Kaz Bland from UWA. Rob presented sessions on provocative objects – and asked questions such as ‘What is it? What is it for?’ as well as delivering sessions on his specialism of eugenics.

The 'Philosopher in Residence' program has proven to be a hugely successful and popular feature of the school, as students and staff have benefited from the knowledge and experiences of these professional philosophers and educators to deepen their thinking and understanding.

Students are also able to attend conferences in Perth, led by international visiting philosophers. This allows our students to meet with their peers in other schools, and to develop their knowledge and understanding of philosophical topics. Recent highlights have included opportunities to hear from philosophical heavyweights such as Steven Law, Peter Vardy and Robert Kirkwood, who have inspired as much as they have perplexed, the students with their use of reasoning and questioning to enrich understanding.

The ultimate aim of this approach is to equip and enable the students to meet the age-old motto of the enlightenment - Sapere aude! Loosely translated, and attributed to both Rouseau and Kant, this becomes the mantra ‘Dare to think for yourself’ or ‘Dare to know’. This is how we should be preparing our students for when they leave school – not just to know the ‘right’ answer, but to be critical, creative and collaborative thinkers. Philosophy has proven to be an extremely effective tool to move towards meeting these ends, and will continue to grow in importance to meet the needs of 21st century learners.